We were able to build 4800 square foot garden and add 18 chickens to our campus. The garden and chickens, who are producing 90 eggs per week have provided enough food to supplement our lunch program and the response has been tremendous. The Swarthmorean , a local newspaper wrote a story about our Farm to Fork program and put it on the front page. Philadelphia Magazine is currently working on a story about the program for their October schools edition.
Teachers from different classrooms take groups of students to the garden one or two times a week. In addition, our Oldest Group (5th- and 6th-grades) takes care of the sheep (mucking, providing water and feed, letting out to graze), our Middle Circle (3rd- and 4th-grades) takes care of the chickens (providing water and feed, harvesting and weighing eggs), and our primary circle (1st- and 2nd-grades) collects composting and brings it to one of the bins by the garden. Students will often cook in the kitchen and their classrooms as well. Spanish students made empanadas for the whole school this year and the Oldest Group created an entire restaurant, complete with servers, hosts, table service, and menus. I have become an amateur gardener myself and have become completely obsessed with growing things. I've even lost a few pounds as a result of eating more healthy.
Our final savings total for the food program this year (2017-18) was $11,000!
Outcomes for our students have been amazing and sometimes unexpected. We are seeking to develop a higher level of food awareness in young people so that they not only grow up to be healthy eaters but that they are also concerned about where food comes from and aware of places where food is scarce or unavailable. We hope to provide further education about issues such as food deserts and partner with different schools who might not have the opportunities that we do. One idea is that I would like to bring Ron Finley, the "Gangster Gardner of LA," whom I met at fundraising event in Philly, to speak with our students and constituents about these issues. We are definitely seeing evidence of greater awareness and I believe students are becoming interested in moving from interest and empathy into action and change. For example, our students volunteered at Heritage Farm, a wonderful program that supports mothers and children in need in Philadelphia. Students from the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf come to campus often and get to be part of the experience. We hope to nurture this drive further through our service learning program. An unexpected benefit has been that because parents can be assured that their children are eating healthy meals throughout the school day, they can feel free to indulge the more unhealthy choices at home. This has resulted in fewer battles over food at home as well as opportunities for conversations about food around the dinner table informed by what children have learned at school.
Another thing that I am excited about is how galvanizing this effort has been for our community. Rather than coming in with my own agenda for The School in Rose Valley, I sought to understand what folks might be jazzed about about and bring that into the program. I encountered a number of families who worked at local farms or who were involved with local CSAs, or who were just into gardening. We started with individual conversations that turned into large group conversations and at some point I felt confident that this initiative would be something that people could get behind.
Lastly, this program is so in line with our progressive values. It reinforces the value of community responsibility and collective effort that we try to nurture in our students. Caring for living things build empathy in our students and also provides the opportunity to process difficult things, like the death of an animal. Paramount is our commitment to learning by doing - experiential education -- and the Farm to Fork program is rich with opportunities for students to get their hands dirty and learn mathematics, agronomical sustainability, engineering botany, problem-solving, cooperation ... the list goes on. Our 5th and 6th grade students, for example, spent the month of September envisioning, designing, engineering, and building a new shelter for our sheep. The garden also provides the opportunity to fail, often absent in schools' approaches to learning. If you don't water or feed your carrots, they will not live, but you learn from the experience and do it better the next time. Our children are vey interested in the garden and the animals and this provides a way for us to tap into their interests and affinities -- emergent curriculum -- and design experiences around those. So the Farm to Fork program is pedagogically rich as well and provides yet another unique program within an already unique school.
What challenges did or does your project face?
There was a negative reaction to the new menu by some families at first. Children had gotten used to less healthier items, like pizza bagels, and rebelled against the change. Over time, however, and due on large part to the responsiveness of our Chef/Garden coordinator, this got better and as soon as I witnessed students coming to the kitchen to ask for more salad, I was glad that we stuck with it.
The compost bins attracted rodents and a number of critters were getting in through the bottom of the gate.
How are you working to overcome them?
We are marketing the garden in effective ways by hosting information nights and getting feedback. Our Chef/Garden Coordinator polled all fo the students t get feedback about their likes and dislikes and to solicit ideas for new dishes. She then adjusted the menu. Our messaging relays the many benefits to our unique approach to lunch.
We had the landscaping company that built the fence shore up the gates and switched to closed compost bins.
What did you or your project learn this season that might be useful to others as well?
Gardens are rich with educative opportunities. If you want to truly embrace gardening in a school, look at it from every angle and fully integrate it into your program. The other thing is that children are naturally very healthy eaters. If they have access to the right foods and know where those foods come from, they make healthy choices and seek to help others do the same.